Rethinking Tiger Population
With just 10 to 20 per cent of world’s potential tiger habitat of 1.2 million sq km, India possibly harbors over 70 per cent or more of world’s tigers
Everyone is overjoyed as the roars of the wild cats have gone more frequent. India has reportedly registered an increase in tiger population. Long-term efforts of several sections of the society – Government organizations, NGOs, and wild conservators besides others – finally appear to be paying off.
Lovers of the wild from all over; departments concerned and their staff came together to celebrate this rise in the tiger population and at the same time discuss the issues that still threaten our tigers. The occasion was the Third Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation, organized on April 12 in the national capital. This event was held in the wake of a report, released on April 10, by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Global Tiger Forum (GTF).
As per the report, the world’s wild tiger population was on the rise, and on track for a doubling in a decade. However, there are
several tiger biologists who have refuted the findings of the report. They are questioning the survey methodologies and the basis of the findings regarding the rise in the wild cat’s population.
According to tiger biologists, there is no doubt that wildlife managers in parts of India and even in specific reserves in South East Asia and Russia have made commendable conservation efforts, leading to recoveries in specific tiger populations. India has invested massively in recovering several tiger populations over the last four decades. This has been possible because of strong political, administrative and public support rarely matched anywhere else.
They explain that such sporadic tiger recoveries should be monitored using statistically robust camera trap or DNA surveys. Rigorous scientific studies in India, Thailand and Russia demonstrate that this can indeed be done.
However, these studies also indicate that tiger recovery rates are slow and not likely to attain levels necessary for the doubling of wild tiger numbers within a decade.
With just 10 to 20 per cent of the world’s potential tiger habitat of 1.2 million square km, India possibly harbors more than 70 per cent or more of world’s tigers. India has invested more money, manpower, political will, and public support for tigers, right from 1970s, than any other tiger country. As a result, in some regions like Western Ghats, Central India and Terai region tiger population has rebounded-with ups and downs at specific reserves, of course over a period of 40 years, informs Ullas Karanth, Director for Science, Asia-Wildlife Conservation Society.
As per the official website of the 3rd Asia Ministerial Conference (3AMC) on Tiger Conservation, tiger population has definitely seen a rise but the status of the wild tiger across the Tiger Range Countries continues to remain grim. Though there have been some gains on the conservation front during the last few years, as seen in the population build up in some Tiger Range Countries, the global scenario remains a cause of major concern.
The alarming issue of tigers having become locally extinct in some of these Tiger Range Countries surfaced during the deliberations in the 3AMC. One main reason cited for this was the rapidly shrinking habitat and low availability of prey. This is a serious limiting factor in achieving the Tx2 goal within the timeline envisaged. The situation calls for a differentiated strategy to deal with the issues of the Tiger Range Countries.
According to a study: Methods in Ecology and Evolution, “Since tigers extensively use man-made dirt roads and trails, in areas where human population densities are high and tiger densities are low, tiger tracks are often less detectable because of extensive movement of vehicles, people and cattle along the same track. If this is the case, then we encounter two problems: first that there is a lack of identifiability and, secondly the abundance index versus actual abundance relationship is no more linear. Thus the numbers always stand a chance of not being good enough to set a mark. Tiger biologists explain that current estimates of tiger numbers for large landscapes, regions and countries, are largely derived from weak methodologies. They are sometimes based on extrapolations from tiger spoor (tracks and droppings) surveys, or spoor surveys alone. While spoor surveys can be useful for knowing where tigers occur, they are not useful for reliably counting their numbers. Translating spoor counts to tiger numbers poses several statistical problems that, if unresolved, can lead to fundamentally flawed claims of changes in tiger numbers.
Source populations of tigers that occur at high densities and which are likely to produce ‘surplus’ animals that can disperse and expand populations now occupy less than 10 per cent of the remaining 1.2 million square kilometers of tiger habitat. Almost 70 per cent of wild tigers survive within these source sites. They are recovering slowly, only in some reserves where protection has improved. Outside these source sites lie vast ‘sink landscapes’, which are continuing to lose tigers and habitat due to hunting as well as developmental pressures.
An officer at Bandhavgarh tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh explains that tigers are more susceptible as they like to live alone. Two tigers cannot live in the same area. They have defined boundaries and if two happen to be in the same area, only one survives.
There are cases where the tiger has killed its own cubs. It mostly happens when the tigress denies mating as she is busy caring for the cubs. At times, tigresses have been seen going ahead with false mating just to protect the cubs.
With such behavioral traits, fighting for their survival in a shrinking green space is a huge challenge. Even if the population actually doubles in a decade where is the place to provide for them? The problem remains the same and we get back to square one as they will fight among themselves and again the population will decline. There is a lot to be done beyond monitoring numbers and allocating reserves. There is a need to increase the green spaces on our planet, especially in the Tiger Range Countries.
Karanth and other tiger biologists say, “With the above considerations in view, even taking these estimated tiger numbers at face value, simple calculations show that doubling of the world’s tigers in ten years as hoped for in the April 10 report is not a realistic proposition. Assuming 7090 per cent of wild tigers are in source populations with slow growth, such an anticipated doubling of global tiger numbers would demand an increase between 364-831 percent in these sink landscapes. We believe this to be an unlikely scenario.”
They add that rather than engaging in these tiger number games, conservationists must now focus on enhancing and expanding recovery and monitoring of source populations, while protecting their remaining habitat and their linkages, all the while being guided by the best of science.
If we have to save our tigers we need to take genuine steps towards saving the sinking landscape across the globe.